The filmography of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni contains few outright adaptations of other artists’ work besides that of probably his most widely known film, the trendsetting “Blow Up” from 1966. But his mid-period film “Le amiche”, released in Italy in 1955, also falls into that category. It’s based on a novella by Italian writer Césare Pavese, a work called Tra donne sole (1949), or “Among Women Only”. This writer developed a set of themes that clearly anticipated those that would come to be much associated with Antonioni’s own work at the peak of his career in the sixties: at that point, a series of acclaimed films by the director emerged which routinely portrayed detached, disengaged individuals, isolated and adrift amid a sea of fleeting, inscrutable, glamorous but ultimately superficial relationships. Like one of the main characters in the screenplay of “Le amiche”, Pavese eventually committed suicide; this film adaptation of one of his acclaimed works occupies a tantalising Janus-faced position in its director’s oeuvre, taking something of a middle ground that at once looks back to the traditional narrative cinema of contemporary ‘50s Italian melodrama, while also clearly signposting the ground-breaking style and existential themes of “L'avventura” (1960) ,with long scenes shot in those characteristic unbroken, beautifully framed takes and a disconnected, elliptical plot revolving around the concerns of a wealthy set of bored socialites and their various doomed romantic entanglements.
The film had a troubled production history that may have accidently contributed to its air of episodic interruption, with numerous hiatuses in filming caused by financial troubles that eventually led to a switch of film companies. The film was not released in New York until 1963 – well after audiences had come to associate Antonioni with the unbridled modernist style displayed in the classic trilogy “L’avventura”, “La notte” and “L'eclisse”. “Le amiche” with its apparent straightforward narrative style, was consequently not a great success at the time, but viewed now as a stylistic marker on the road to Antonioni’s eventual destination, it is a fascinating and subtle first tentative delineation of the familiar concerns and themes apparent in his later work. This duel format UK Blu-ray and DVD edition from the Master of Cinema presents a marvellous restored print with a high definition transfer which is a revelation considering the parlous state of the original camera negative before restoration work, commenced by the partnership of Cineteca di Bologno, L’Immagine Ritrovata and Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, took place.
Eleonora Rossi-Drago stars as Clelia, a pretty couturier who works for a large Rome-based fashion house that’s seeking to open a new branch outlet in her home town of Turin. While overseeing the plans of arrogant architect Cesare Pedoni (Franco Fabritzi) for the new shop, and fretting over the slowly progressing and hopelessly behind-schedule work of his team of builders, Clelia stays at a plush Torino hotel where a young party girl attempts suicide in the room next door to hers. The girl’s best friend turns up -- an older, exceedingly rich and extroverted woman called Momina De Stefani (Yvonne Furneaux) -- who is contentedly separated from her husband while being the glamorous centre of a female social scene that includes an up-and-coming ceramics artist called Nene (Valentina Cortese) who has a possible New York exhibition pending; the girly, vain and man-obsessed Mariella (Anna Maria Pancani); and the attempted suicide herself Rosetta Savoni (Madeleine Fischer).
Lonely and now estranged and feeling quite excluded from the city she once grew up in, Clelia is increasingly drawn to Momina and her well-groomed set of frivolous acquaintances, and becomes part of the De Stefani circle in the course of helping her piece together the story behind what caused Rosetta to take such drastic life-threatening action. She and Momina first indulge themselves in some cod detective work in order to discover the identity of the person to whom Rosetta tried to make three telephone calls just before taking her overdose of sleeping pills.
The faux detective drama of act one becomes a way of introducing all the players in a detailed study of ennui and miscommunication in a stylish world of mirages ; while later Antonioni films used the genre concept of the mystery story in an abstract, metaphorical way, drawing the viewer in with it but purposefully undermining its conventions and leaving narrative tensions unresolved, ”Le amiche” is far less schematic: Momina’s investigation takes her no further than her own close-knit group of urbanite friends and introduces Clelia to their sophisticated world of smart cafes, plush bars and chic art galleries. It’s a world of glossy, impeccably styled surfaces, where beauty and appearance is everything. Momina is the epitome of this outlook: she can switch between contemplation of her suicidal friend’s disturbed state of mind to quizzing Clelia over her dress sense and her beauty regime in an instant. The two new friends discover that the stricken girl was having her portrait painted by the artist boyfriend of Nene, a man called Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti). That portrait now hangs in the couple’s gallery, while the group discuss its absent subject. Over the course of various meetings and social gatherings in Turin’s locales, it emerges that there is tension in the relationship between Nene and Lorenzo which is exacerbated when Rosetta leaves hospital and an affair starts up between herself and the failed artist, prompted when his ego is stroked by the girl’s revelation that her unrequited feelings for him developed during the period that he painted her portrait, and that he was the cause of her attempt on her own life. Meanwhile, Momina starts an affair with Clelia’s architect Cesare, and Clelia herself turns to the architect’s working-class assistant Carlo (Ettore Manni), while also attempting to help Rosetta by giving the girl a job at the newly opened Dressmaker’s she now manages.
This little group seems happy enough at first in its frivolous banter and with group days out at the beach, but Momina’s cynical encouragement and manipulation for her own amusement of the affair between Lorenzo and Rosetta eventually leads to tragedy, and the general self-deception that denotes each of these character’s superficial relationships with each other is quickly laid bare. “Le amiche” manages to keep up a genial tone almost all the way through, almost parodying the screwball comedies of period Hollywood films despite the grim central subject matter of a suicidal girl’s doomed attempt to find meaning in a misconceived romance and in a set of barren and baseless relationships. This light-hearted tone is misleading though: each of the characters ends up deceiving themselves in a variety of ways; all of them, except perhaps Nene and Lorenzo (who look set to carry on in the same dysfunctional non-committal way as before), are in the end on their own, despite their convictions to the contrary: none of the relationships in the film, whether they be friendships or romantic alliances, is ultimately based on anything more than the economics of shifting sand. Antonioni often underlines this pessimistic conclusion by contrasting the bright, bustling, chic surroundings of his characters with the sickness and poverty of their interactions. The most overt example comes two-thirds of the way in when Clelia, her Dressmaker’s shop now open for business, holds a fashion show on the premises, to which all her chic new friends are invited. Nene, who has recently accidently discovered the affair between Rosetta and Lorenzo, takes her friend into one of the backstage areas acting as dressing rooms to tell her that she will leave Lorenzo and move to New York where her career looks set to take off, while Rosetta, blind to the complications underlying Nene and Lorenzo’s fractured relationship, affirms that the failed artist and she are head-over-heels in love – this sombre scene plays out against a backdrop of excitable models from the fashion show, flitting about and changing into … luxurious fairy tale wedding dresses! The sumptuous, cleanly framed images Antonioni contrives throughout “Le amiche” (which is now looking much slicker and detailed than ever before in HD) gradually reveal a ragged web of troubled, misplaced misunderstandings connecting friendships and other relationships in the circle, with the accretion of a series of fragmented vignettes, during which we gradually learn to realise that what each character thinks he/she knows about themselves and the significant other in their lives cannot be relied upon.
This luminous restoration is available for the first time in the UK thanks to Eureka! And The Master of Cinema, and comes in a duel format edition that includes a DVD version for those who have not yet made the change to Blu-ray. As well as the film itself, both discs include the same extras consisting of an eight minute talk by film critic and teacher Gabe Klinger on the production background to the film, and a further ten minute general talk and examination of Michelangelo Antonioni’s overall career and where “Le amiche” fits in. Furthermore, the disc(s) come with a twenty-five page booklet full of essays, interviews and contemporary writings and comment on the film, as well as many luscious monochrome production stills and detailed production credits.
“Le amiche” on Blu-ray makes another worthy package that any cinephile will find it expedient to add to their home viewing collection forthwith.